Bordering  on War

~ by Jim Collier

Almost 100-years ago, a dramatic chapter in Arizona history was written that would change the very nature of military warfare.

Surprise Attack

On March 9, 1916, the sleepy western frontier town of Columbus, New Mexico, awakened to find itself the center of the first armed invasion of the Continental United States since the War of 1812.  Eighteen Americans were killed in the bloody raid, and many more were wounded.  The village was pillaged, property destroyed and U.S. military armament, stolen. This vicious attack on American soil hadn’t been carried out by a foreign country, this time it was the work of a renegade band of Mexican revolutionaries under the command of the infamous…

General Francisco “Pancho” Villa

Now, this wasn’t the first time Villa had come close to provoking a direct confrontation with the U.S.  His brutal raids on towns and villages, up and down the Mexican border, were well known.  Two-years before the Columbus invasion, my mother-to-be, 14-year-old Anna Davis, was a witness to one of his most savage attacks.

Little Women of Arizona

Young Anna and her older, tomboyish sister, Bernie, had run away from their foster homes in Bisbee, Arizona to be reunited with their footloose father in Mexico. Their wild, summer adventure began when they hopped a slow-moving train pulling copper ore to the smelter in Douglas, Arizona, 27-miles away.  Their final destination… Aqua Prieta (dark water), a dusty Mexican mining town just across the border from Douglas The giant U.S. mining company, Phelps Dodge Corporation had investments in the area and had sent some of its American workers down there to work the mines,  Papa Martin Davis, among them

Needless to say, Papa, was not happy to find his two daughters waiting on his doorstep. He was shocked to learn they had sneaked away from their foster homes in Bisbee and had traveled alone to Mexico, just to be with him.  This would never do!  He was in no better position to care for Anna and Bernie in Mexico than he had been in Bisbee.   They had to go back on the next train.

Ideally, he would have lodged them in the elegant, new Gadsden Hotel on the American side of the border, (now listed in the National Registry of Historic Places) but that was way out of reach on a miner’s wage. Banking on the kindness of strangers, he placed his girls in the care of a local family.  Their place was typical of the times, adobe walls, roof of logs, grass and mud, an old wood-fired cook stove and a hard-as-rock dirt floor.

On their second day in Aqua Prieta, all hell broke loose.  Poncho Villa and his pistoleros rode in and began shooting up the town. Anna, caught in the crossfire, flung herself on the cabin’s floor.  The thunderous sounds of horse racing up and down the street, gun fire, explosions screams and yelling pounded in her ears as she pressed harder into the packed earth, trying to become an unseen part of it.

The raid continued in deadly spurts for about three-days and when it was over, Anna discovered she had not escaped unharmed.  The floor she had tried to bury herself in had been soaked in lye to keep it clean, smooth and hard - as a result, she suffered burns on her skin. Years later, she told me the whole story – how thrilled she was to escape her restrictive foster home, how scared she was of Pancho Villa and how much her burns hurt on the hot train ride home with Bernie.

Pancho Villa suffered, too.  He was driven out of Aqua Prieta by superior Mexican military forces and had to regroup his mutinous troops in preparation for new moves against Americans, whom he believed had given aid to his enemies.

To many, “Pancho” Villa was a Robin Hood figure, taking from the rich to help Mexico’s poor. To others, he was a cutthroat, murderer who loved power and publicity.   To the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, he was a loose cannon that, dead or alive, had to be stopped.

Next: For the first time, the U.S. Army launches motorized units on land and in the air, paving the way to victory in World War I.

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